Friday, February 28, 2014

Tom Meets a Hero

Tom Johnson published some of my earliest work, in his series of pulp magazines, and we've been friends and occasional collaborators ever since. I first communicated with Tom by mail. You remember mail: you would write or type a letter, then fold it up and put it in an envelope, slap a stamp on it and drop it in a mail box. Days or weeks later, you'd get a reply. So 20th century! We did our collaboration on SHADOWHAWKE: FIRST FLIGHT by mail; I'd write a chapter, send it to him, he'd write the next one, send it back, and so on. 

I recently guest-blogged on Tom's The Pulp Den, and he's been kind enough to return the favor. Without more ado, here's a stirring story from yesteryear, of Tom and that great Western hero, Lash LaRue.  


I Meet a Hero

When we moved from Ohio Street some time in 1950, my dad bought a small mobile home (8 X 28 foot), which he set up behind a lumberyard on Broad Street between 6th and 7th Streets. This was a new world for me. I was half a block from the Boys Club, and across the street from the Wichita Falls Memorial Auditorium. The mobile home was small, and didn't have a bathroom, but it was probably as big as the little apartment we lived in on Ohio Street for three years. There was a storage room in the big house, which had a bathroom for our use, a step above an outhouse. We had to take baths in a washtub.

The Boys Club in Background

 I joined the Boys Club and it became a home-away-from-home for me. It had a library and a workshop where I learned to make things on machines, a gym with lots of activities, and the employees saw to it that we had things to do every day. On Saturdays, they provided a buss to take kids to the Tower theater for the Saturday Matinee, but I never went. Across the street from the Boys Club was an orphanage with a fenced-in playground. I felt sad for the children inside, for they would stand at the fence and watch us playing outside, and were unable to join us. A block and a half from me was 8th Street Park - those further up the road called it 9th Street Park. It covered the whole block and had slides, swings, and merry-go-rounds; in later years, it was given the official name of Bellevue Park, the swings and slides removed, and million-dollar architecture was added. Ugly.


 Me with Clinic in Background

The lumberyard had a wooden trailer parked in front with wood scraps for the neighborhood, and National Geographic magazines tossed inside, free for the kids. It was some benefactor's way of seeing that children had something educational to read. The free scraps of lumber were a novelty also. Try going to a lumberyard today and asking for free scraps! A medical clinic was across the alley

My little world had suddenly changed from sidewalks and winos, theaters and five & dimes, to parks, playgrounds, and the Boys Club. Here, too, I had many kids my own age to play with. I didn't miss Ohio Street, nor did I ever go back. I would visit Indiana Street once in a while, but for some reason I was afraid to venture back to where I had spent three years of my life.

The Memorial Auditorium was open during the weekdays, and I had the run of the place, often helping out the office workers when they needed someone to run an errand. It wasn't all concrete and parking lot at the time, either. There were large grassy areas on both sides of the building, and these became the local children's playground in summer and winter. We would ride our bikes down the hill in the summer, and slide cardboard boxes down it in the winter. No one said anything to us. I did catch a black widow and her babies in a glass jar once and showed it to the janiter, who quickly washed the spiders down a drain and warned me not to play with spiders. I still play with spiders and bugs today, however. My sisters and their boyfriends also set pallets on the grass and made out when they could get rid of me. Usually that cost their boyfriends a dime or quarter. I would still run home and tell my mother that they were kissing their boyfriends!


My Sister and Friend On Auditorium Lawn

 Something else about the Memorial Auditorium, they brought shows to town. I'm sure they charged for them, but I was always given a free pass. We only lived in the mobile home about a year, and when my dad couldn't make payments on it, we had to move. So the time would be around 1951 when one of my heroes came to town. I was given a pass for the show that night, and onstage was Lash LaRue and Al "Fuzzy" St. John, western stars I had watched at the picture shows downtown on many Saturdays. Lash would pop that 15-foot long bullwhip, and Fuzzy would roll a cigarette with one hand, then they would put on a mock fistfight for our entertainment. I sat in wonderment, as only an eleven-year-old boy could throughout the show. Then when it was all over, Lash and Fuzzy visited with the audience, and spoke with us. I even got a pat on the head from Lash LaRue!

Me Playing Cowboy

 However, there is sadness even in such glorious times as this. Much later, I learned that in 1951 the B Westerns were dying, and all of the western stars were making the rounds trying to promote interest in a dying entertainment industry. Their contracts were up in 1951 and '52, and the studios were not renewing them. Westerns were growing up, and TV was taking the place of the Saturday Matinees. Cowboy stars like Lash LaRue were drifting away, their careers finished.

About ten years after his last movie, the police found a man passed out in the gutter and threw him in the drunk tank to sleep it off. Someone at the station recognized him and notified the newspapers. The next day, the headlines read, "Cowboy movie star, Lash LaRue, arrested for public intoxication!" What could have been the final nail in his coffin actually revived his career to a small degree. TV networks heard about the arrest, and it wasn't long before Lash LaRue was making special appearances on network television. Conventions also started asking him to appear as Guest of Honor. Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson hired him in a bit part for their television remake of "Stagecoach". He died in obscurity at age 80 in 1996.

They looked so much alike that Lash LaRue could have passed for Humphrey Bogart's twin. The likeness was often a curse for Lash, as people would often mistake him for Bogart. He enjoyed telling one story at conventions that went something like this: One day an actress he worked with asked him:

"Are you related to Humphrey Bogart?"

"I don't think so," he replied.

"Hmm," the actress continued. "Did your mother by chance meet Bogart before you were conceived?"

When I met Lash LaRue in 1951, he was a giant. Perhaps his only claim to fame, besides his resemblance to Bogart, was that of a B Western movie star. But for kids growing up in the 1940s and '50s, our heroes were bigger than life. They were the good guys that we needed. The fathers we didn't have. They brought justice to the West, and gave us someone to emulate when we grew up. And that wasn't a bad thing.

 BTW, I too also had the honor and pleasure of meeting and shaking Lash LaRue's hand; he retired to Gaffney, SC, and I met him in the early 80s—over 30 years after Tom's first meeting with a hero.

Here's the incomparable Lash LaRue:



Sunday, February 23, 2014

Olympic Writing

Been watching the Winter Olympics? Nope, me neither. I don't know of many writers who are into sports, though of course there must be some. It seems mutually exclusive, at least to me, to have someone who is happy sitting in front of a screen or pad of paper, and who is also happy running around or falling or sliding on snow or skating on ice, always with the possibility of falling down. Hard.

I don't like to fall down, and falling down hard and breaking something is the absolute worst. I broke the radius and ulna—note the sciency knowledge of anatomy terms which one can pick up writing—in my right arm. I was writing the day after. My brilliant husband made me a sling suspended from the ceiling over my keyboard, out of a piece of wood and a rope. I could rest my cast in the sling, with my fingers dangling over the keyboard. Finished several short stories and a book while not being able to straighten my right arm.  

Show me an Olympian who can work in a cast. So there. Hah.   

There's a Mark Twain quote that goes something like: "A doctor or a lawyer or a teacher must spend years of study to deserve his title. But give a man a pencil and he thinks he's a writer."   

I'm sure all you writers out there know folks like this. "As soon as I have time, I'm going to write a book" is one of my favorites, as if 'having time' is all that's necessary. I've also heard "I've got a great idea for a story; you write it and we'll share the profits." Sound familiar?

A lot of soi-disant writers—see what two years of high school French can teach you?—seem to think that all it takes to be a writer is to sit down at a keyboard and start typing. Who needs grammar? Not me; grammar is so twentieth century. Spelling? Psstt! Spelling is for spell-checker. Clear, readable, concise, crystal clear prose? Nah, too much trouble. I'll just sit down and throw up a whole bunch of vaguely related words and voilá—see that French again?—I'm a writer.  

Not to dash a barrel of cold water in your face, Mr./Ms. Writer person, but really? Suck it up and acquire the basic tools of your craft. Grammar and punctuation and spelling and sentence structure are the bricks and mortar and trowel and straightedge of your trade. If you balk at learning them, just don't want to take the time and the trouble, then why should I take the trouble and the time of trying to decipher what the heck you're talking about? 

Olympic writing. Let's all go for the gold. [Insert tumultuous applause here, yay!!]




Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Three Captains and a Ranger—Classic TV at its Classiest.

Captain Z-Ro. Somewhere in a remote, uncharted region of the planet Earth stands the laboratory of CAPTAIN Z-RO. In this secret location, known only to a few in the outside world, CAPTAIN Z-RO and his associates experiment in TIME and SPACE learn from the past ...plan for the future...

Okay, who would not love an intro like that? Who could turn the channel? And yes, I said turn, for Captain Z-Ro existed in the old days and on the old TVs. Imagine: you had to get up, walk to the TV, and manually turn the channel. Oh, the pain! And the sparkling black-and-white. Love it!

Captain Z-Ro had, in my humble opinion, the coolest mustache and beard combo. Ever. Check it out: Z is on the right, with his pesky kid sidekick Jet beside him. Z sent Jet into the past to correct incipient errors before they could reverberate down through time and change stuff. Like, really important stuff. But the helmet made it all worthwhile, don't you think?


Then we have Captain Video. Poor, missing Captain Video with his really cool title card:




Lots of renowned science fiction writers penned episodes of this tragically lost series, including Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Jack Vance and Arthur C. Clarke. One can't help but wonder which one of these greats came up with the absolutely coolest and most perfect villain's name in the history of scifi and all else of vast importance: Chauncey Everett.
Okay, maybe you had to be there.  

Very few episodes survive today because of some idiot who burned most of them back in the 1970s. Whoever committed such a heinous crime, I hope he is now paying for his dastardly crimes. Painfully.  

And then there's Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Clean-cut, square-jawed Rocky and his crew used either the Orbit Jet XV-2 or, later in the series, the suspiciously similar Silver Moon XV-3. We were often treated to a glimpse of the Orbit Jet/Silver Moon, looking like a V2 rocket—remember, this was only a few years after the end of WWII—setting down in what appeared to be a power station. Something very much like this, in fact:

Seriously futuristic, Rocky's spaceship had electronic viewscreens—most other early TV scifi made do with a plain old window or at most a porthole—elaborate control panels sans wheel or stick, powered doors that OPENED WHEN YOU APPROACHED, a cloaking device, subspace radio—hmm, sound familiar to anyone? Anyone?—and artificial gravity which was actually explained and occasionally used as a plot device.

Clearly, this was one 50s series that was decades ahead of its time. And Rocky himself was a babe:



And, though he didn't actually spend time in space, I also had a thing for Captain Midnight, also a babe:
Captain Midnight had a penchant for standing around with his hands on his hips, and he had a lovely booming voice. And he was a hero, of course.
Charming, upbeat, endlessly positive, everyone looking forward to an exciting future in space and time, heroes who always saved the day…

Is it any wonder I loved these series as a kid? And they obviously affect me still and even unto this day...


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Let's Give Adverbs a Little Love for Valentine's Day

Pity the poor adverb, the least respected, most abused part of speech.

First of all, there’s the brawny verb, always doing something energetic, kind of the Hulk of grammar, smashing or running or jumping or, in some case, simply being. Run. Dance. Write. Laugh. Exterminate. You can almost hear his shirt tearing.

Then there are the nouns, the prima donnas of the parts of speech. "We’re the names of things," they whine. "Everything, but everything has a naaaame." Table. Chair. Computer. Pen, paper, ink…you can understand how nouns have swollen heads. They’re surrounded, submerged, all but drowning in things they represent.

And where there are nouns, there must be adjectives, the handmaidens, the servants, the toadies. We can't just have a table; oh, no. We have to have a large, wooden, shiny, heavy, sturdy, gleaming, antique table. It’s not just a pen; it’s a fine-point black-ink gel pen. The sky is blue, or gray or cloudy. The sun is a brilliant bright orange. Adjectives: the sycophants of grammar.

But as if nouns didn’t already have swollen heads about themselves, they also have to have an entire class of words to take their place. It’s almost as if the poor overworked nouns need to run off to the Hamptons for a long weekend once a month or more, so bring in the pronouns. While my sister is slathering on sunscreen, she is taking her place in a sentence. Even our old bright brilliant friend the sun may be off dancing with the moon, while it is subbing way up in the sky.

Prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, all little guys wandering around in sentences, but they get plenty of notice and pats on their little heads. Prepositions even get objects, and conjunctions are like chains or pivot points, joining up things. And don’t even get me started on interjections, those excitable little dudes who get exclamation points! Wow! Cool! Awesome!

Then, sneaking along behind, embarrassed to be seen, picking up crumbs at the grammar banquet with their little –ly tails dragging in the dust behind them, there’s the lowly adverb. Gone are the adverbial glory days—if they ever existed. Read what Mark Twain had to say about the poor little guys:

"I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. ... There are subtleties which I cannot master at all,--they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me,--and this adverb plague is one of them. ... Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won't." 

Even Stephen King said "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."  

Ouch! Well, yes, okay, it’s true. Adverbs can be a sign of weak writing, a cry for stronger verbs. But don’t they deserve a little respect instead of being ostracized and sent into the outer darkness? If someone is eating voraciously, isn’t that easier to say than ‘as if he hasn’t had a meal in days’ if only for word count alone? 

I confess it, loud and proud: I have any unholy passion for the red-headed step-child of grammar, the lowly adverb. So sue me.  

And don’t even get me started on the tragic semicolon, poor, misunderstood bastard child of a period and a comma…